For International Shakeout Day: Earthquake! (1974)

The third Thursday in October is observed as International Shakeout Day, designed to increase awareness of earthquake safety. As with fire safety, the issue is hardly irrelevant to theatres, so we do our part to let people know it exists. We’ve even done a couple of relevant posts here, this one on the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, and on a more frivolous note, I gave an absurd amount of attention to the 2015 movie San Andreas.

Naturally, I was very hard on that film because I am such a fan of the best earthquake movie of all time, Earthquake (1974). Like the shifting, turbulent plates on which we live our precarious lives, the movie is flawed, but massive, and, for better or worse, a foundation on which much of the disaster movie genre stands.

This is one of my favorite movies. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it. A dozen? I love everything about it. With each passing year it gains more charm as a product of its times. And it has the best, most all-encompassing disaster of the classic disaster film era, assisted by the technical innovation of Sensurround. It’s marred by some serious flaws, which only make me love it the more. It’s way over-dependent on coincidence and implausible incident — ridiculously so. In a city of millions, the same ten or so characters keep bumping into each other.  Architect/ football player Charlton Heston cheats on wife Ava Gardner with Genevieve Bujold but is loyal to father-in-law Lorne Greene…meanwhile Blaxploitation/ Evel Knievel hybrid Richard Roundtree is trying to do his motorcycle jumps with his manager Gabe Dell, whose sister Victoria Principal is being harassed by grocery store/ national guard psycho pervert Marjoe Gortner. And running through it all is LA beat cop George Kennedy (who would later play an identical role on tv as The Blue Knight). And Walter Matthau in a hilarious cameo role as a drunk. Then, the earthquake comes and shakes all these people out of these dramas like nuts out of the trees. And they keep encountering each other amidst unimaginable destruction and chaos.  Until Kennedy and Heston rescue a bunch of people trapped in a collapsed parking garage which is serving as a makeshift triage center run by Lloyd Nolan), which is about to be engulfed in flood water.

Melodrama maven Mark Robson pulled the puppet strings on this epic, which can justifiably be summarized as “Peyton Place Meets Jiffy Pop”. You shake it until it explodes and then messy, good stuff falls out. I find it impossible to watch Earthquake now without seeing Day of Judgment overtones, all of these sinners running around a latter day Babylon, until they are made to pay for it with a genuine Armageddon. The images of a destroyed Los Angeles really do put this movie in a category with Heston’s other post-Apocalyptic work of that time, things like Planet of the Apes, The Omega Man, and Soylent Green…to say nothing of The Ten Commandments. The wrath of God, or something, does seem to be a thing, at least in potent storytelling. Which is why later attempts at the genre, things like San Andreas and the even more forgettable CGI cartoon 10.0 (2014) are so vapid and yawn-inducing. I find myself far less engaged in random events than the idea of humankind being punished for its hubris. That’s one of the first laws of drama. Ignore the lessons of the Greeks at your peril.

Earthquake has a wonderful, eerie score by John Williams who also composed the music for Towering Inferno and The Poseidon Adventure prior to the bigger wave of blockbusters that followed in the late ’70s which he also scored. Those later films brought about a revolution in special effects that serve to make earlier efforts at spectacle look primitive by comparison. Hence, younger audiences may scoff at the special effects in a movie like Earthquake, which make copious use of miniatures, matte paintings, and in the film’s most unfortunate shot, even animation. But I’ll take this stuff over the look of uncanny valley any day. That, and, you know, characters.

But technology does have its virtues. The latter day successors to Charlton Heston’s character have been designing safer, earthquake resistant buildings for years. And with a very important election approaching, you might want to gaze at the walls and ceiling that enclose you — and consider voting for the candidate who makes things like building safety the law.